Mission Tycoon’s career trajectory this term has been nothing short of remarkable and jockey Derek Leung knows it. On Sunday he will ride the Frankie Lor-trained galloper in the HK$18 million BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m).
“There’s no doubt his improvement has been impressive,” said the rider, who guided the Australian-bred to a shock all-the-way win in the Hong Kong Classic Cup (1800m) last month, at odds of 91/1.
Mission Tycoon has, in the space of three months, morphed from a promising Class 2 sprinter to a serious Derby candidate. Leung puts the credit for that transformation squarely at Lor’s door.
“Frankie has done a very good job with the horse,” he said. “He gave him a break early this season so he came back to racing a bit late and that was good for him, it gave him time to grow up and mature.”
Mission Tycoon won one of four races in his debut campaign but did not step out this season until December. That was on the dirt track, over 1200m, and he finished third. He filled the same sport over the same trip on turf on New Year’s Day, and then placed 10th in a 1400m Class 2: Hardly the profile of a horse rolling towards a Derby.
Then, along came Leung and the Hong Kong Classic Mile - the first leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series.
“Before that, we didn't even think he could go a mile,” Leung admitted.
Mission Tycoon defied general perceptions and placed second behind stablemate Furore. The focus changed; a Classic campaign was on.
“He was quite impressive in the Classic Cup after that,” Leung said. “He led and he was more relaxed in the race which enabled him to stay the 1800 metres. He has improved a lot in his last two runs and that has been quite impressive.”
But the question hangs as to whether the Written Tycoon gelding will stay a mile and a quarter in the Derby.
“Frankie has got him more relaxed and that allows him to stay further,” Leung said. “Last time he improved to where he felt like a different horse so this time we’ll find out if he can handle 2000 metres or not.”
Mission Tycoon has drawn 11 in the 14-runner contest, and, with the only other obvious leader in the race, Ka Ying Star, drawn two, there could be a race within a race to snare the forward position.
“We would love to lead again because he’s quite strong and you could see in his last barrier trial, even at 1000 metres, he was faster than Danny Shum’s horse (87-rated sprinter Baltic Whisper). He’s a sprinter, maturing into a stayer so he has a lot of early speed,” the rider said.
“The plan will be to settle in the first two but if someone goes crazy and takes off then there’s no pressure to lead, we can sit second. If not, he can lead, so there’s that flexibility.”
And Leung takes confidence in the fact that Lor has his charge going into the weekend in peak condition.
“His form since the Classic Cup has been very good so everything is perfect for him to go to the Derby,” he said. “He’s fitness is perfect, mentally he’s getting better, so we just need to deal with the draw and the pace.”
The rider - like the trainer - is looking to snag his first Hong Kong Derby. Success would be the first in the blue riband for a home grown jockey since Tony Cruz won his fourth Derby on Makarpura Star in 1995.
“It’s very important for the local jockeys, but really it’s very important for any jockey because it’s an honour to win it, everyone wants it,” Leung said.
“We do our best to try and win it, representing Hong Kong; it’s special for a Hong Kong jockey to win the Hong Kong Derby. That would be an amazing feeling - I can’t wait for Sunday.”
Derek Leung steers Mission Tycoon to victory in the Hong Kong Classic Cup, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club